How DeVotchKa crawled out from the underground

DeVotchKa UMS

This photo of DeVotchKa was shot in 2002 to celebrate The Denver Post survey naming the group Denver’s best underground band. From left: Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King, Nick Urata and Tom Hagerman.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Next week, the DCPA Theatre Company opens its reimagined look at Sweeney Todd featuring revered local band DeVotchKa‘s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s orchestration. Internationally acclaimed, Grammy-nominated and yet still unknown to many, Denver’s beloved gypsy-punk misfits recently began their 21st year bringing theatrical, sousaphone-infused baroque pop classics to musical life. Three band members – Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King and Tom Hagerman – will perform as part of the orchestra April 8-May 15 in the Stage Theatre.

In 2002, DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was an entertainment reporter at The Denver Post and had recently founded the now 16-year old Underground Music Showcase (The UMS), which began as a modest attempt to spotlight bands most deserving of mainstream recognition. He polled a panel of local musical experts who placed DeVotchKa at the top of the list. The band’s reward: Headlining the 2002 showcase, which has since grown to 400 performances at 20 stages over four days along South Broadway, as well as the following profile story, which was published in The Denver Post on July 21, 2002.

Nick Urata’s haunting wails sound as though he is blurting his most intimate confessions from the other end of the world

Devotchka Quote .IT WAS THE KIND of statement usually followed by the phrase, “And that’s why I did it, your honor.”

“When I was in seventh grade, my best friend was one of the first kids on the block to get a Betamax. But the only two movies his dad owned were A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now,” Nick Urata said. “We became hooked on A Clockwork Orange. There was one summer where we must have watched it every day for six weeks. We were both very much latchkey kids.”

Urata was not explaining some random sociopathic crime spree, the kind so prevalent in Stanley Kubrick’s dark and violent 1971 satire. He was explaining why the band, which a panel of 47 experts assembled by The Denver Post has decreed the best underground outfit in Colorado, is called DeVotchKa.

The name is borrowed from the Anthony Burgess book by the same name, when protopunk droog Alex blurts out his desire for “a little of the old in-out on a weepy young devotchka.”

That Urata set off on not even one crime binge may be partly attributable to his Denver-based musical outlet, the now 7-year-old group that was chosen from among 166 bands in Colorado as the one most deserving of more mainstream recognition. DeVotchKa inherits the mantle from 2001 winner 16 Horsepower.

“This surprises me, because I have always thought we were on the fringes of the Denver scene,” said Urata, whose band is nevertheless an important part of a collective that has helped Colorado gain an international reputation for cultivating its own regional genre, one that may best be described as Old West gothic rock.

“I think there is more interest in this ‘Denver thing’ around the world than there is in Denver,” said Robert Ferbrache, who recorded part of DeVotchKa’s acclaimed 2000 album Supermelodrama at his Absinthe Studios in Westminster. “There’s a lot of interest in DeVotchKa outside of Colorado. There are pockets of people from Toledo, Ohio, to the Netherlands that are obsessed with the Denver music scene. It’s sort of on the coattails of 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, but now, DeVotchKa and Munly are the forerunner of that.”

Bands such as the Denver Gentlemen and the Kalamath Brothers also helped create this signature sound, but DeVotchKa’s flavor is unique, a Latin and Slavic ethnic amalgam that has been called everything from “mariachi polka punk” to “Slavic shlockabilly.”

“Maybe this says that people are ready for something that’s different, something that’s not super-predictable,” said Jeanie Schroder, one of the few rockers who can claim expertise in bass and tuba. Tom Hagerman plays accordion and violin; Shawn King adds drums and trumpet.

But DeVotchKa begins with Urata. His haunting wails sound as though he has just emerged from a nightmare in a cold sweat, blurting his most intimate confessions from the other end of the world.

“One thing I could say about DeVotchKa is they’re unique,” said Ferbrache. “This band is all Nick’s dream, and he’s kept it going through thick and thin. He has a vision of something. … I’m not totally sure of what, but he has one.”

It’s hard for Urata to put his vision into words, too, but it begins with ruffled shirts and accordions. Or maybe it begins with his Sicilian childhood in Croton, N.Y. His first exposure to live music was at summer family gatherings on the Lower East Side.

“All these Italians would gather at my granddad’s place, and the entertainment was provided by these amazing accordion players,” Urata said. “My memory of these instruments are these gigantic breathing lungs. The sound was huge. It was 95 degrees, and these people would be wearing three-piece suits and dancing. They made a lasting impression on me.”

He wasn’t kidding it made an impression. Urata was speaking last Sunday with his bandmates on a 95-degree day on the patio of the Terrace Maya restaurant in north Boulder. He was sporting a colored shirt, cocktail jacket, pressed pants, cool shades and slick-backed jet-black hair. “But don’t let the clothes fool you; this is my work uniform,” said Urata, who doubles as a part-time limo driver.

“When you are in high school and college, you don’t want to be different, and I wanted to get as far away from that world as possible,” he said. “But I paid a price. I was never really sure where I was coming from or going with music.”

Urata attended Western State in Gunnison and had moved to Chicago with his pal “Sweet Jonny V” Ellison to start a band.

“One great day, I came home to my apartment in Chicago and I found Jonny sitting on the stoop playing his new accordion, and it all came back to me,” Urata said. “That world of my granddad’s is totally gone now. But I am so glad I got to glimpse it. Maybe we can keep a little bit of it alive.”

Ellison helped Urata start DeVotchKa but left for a degree in audiology and is now helping deaf kids with speech impediments in Omaha. Urata returned to Colorado, developing DeVotchKa while playing part time in Munly‘s band, De Dar He. By the time DeVotchKa finished “Supermelodrama,” Urata said, “basically my entire band had left me high and dry. When I started the thing I made it clear that it’s for fun, and they took that seriously, I guess, because they all left.”

This pitiable story reminds King of a favorite movie.

“You remember the scene in Airplane! where the guy is telling his life story and the person next to him kills himself?” he said. “It’s like that.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Urata has gone through 13 members of DeVotchKa – “7,000 of them drummers.” Hagerman returned to the fold last year, and Schroder was won over with just one listen to Supermelodrama.

“I swear I listened to that CD every single day for five months straight,” she said. “I felt like I had finally found the music I really wanted to play. I really like Middle Eastern and tango and gypsy music. To hear it taken out of folkdom and put it into the pop realm made me really excited.”

Urata calls his current lineup “as close to what I had visualized for the band as I have ever got.” But it’s hard to imagine that King is exactly what Urata visualized. Urata met him at a benefit for Ralph Nader and the Green Party. Before DeVotchKa took the stage, Urata checked out the set being played by the Pindowns, an all-female punk band. Subbing for the drummer that day was King, who didn’t settle for just playing.

“Shawn was dressed as a woman,” Urata said, goatee and all.  “I saw him in his purple wig, and I knew he was the guy for me.”

They kid, but Urata’s band members are all highly trained musicians. Hagerman graduated from the CU School of Music and has played with Chuck Mangione. Schroder graduated from CU Denver with a degree in tuba performance, and King doubles in a jazz combo that plays under the supervision of the legendary Ron Miles.

“I have been on the verge of extinction so many times with this band, I’m not used to having it this good,” Urata said.

And things are exceptionally good. The band forged a fortuitous bond with the Tucson-based band Calexico, whose keyboard player is second in command at Wavelab Studios, which records Giant Sand and Neko Case. DeVotchKa was invited to record there, and half of their next album is in the can.

Devotchka Quote.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, the band also has been picked up by a Russian label called Bad Taste, which last month released Supermelodrama in Moscow.

And now this – recognition from 47 industry insiders that they are Colorado’s best underground band. They top a list that includes like-minded bands Tarantella and Munly, pop stars Dressy Bessy, surf rockers Maraca 5-0, hard rockers Planes Mistaken for Stars and the inexplicable video-game stylings of Mr. Pacman.

“That’s what’s great about this, because there are a lot of great bands in Colorado,” Urata said.

DeVotchKa finished sixth last year, and they admit that their standing this year was helped out a bit by the fact that last year’s top four were wiped out by attrition or ineligibility.

“It’s definitely one way to move up – murder the competition,” Hagerman said.

“Look at the turmoil in one year,” Ferbrache said of Slim Cessna’s Auto ClubApples in Stereo and the Down-N-Outs. “But you have to hand it to Nick, because DeVotchKa is a survivor.”

But how long can it survive while staying true to a tuba-and-accordion vision that though literate, seductive and danceable will never be considered mainstream? Do they have any chance of finding any sort of mass pop-culture acceptance?

“Yeah, when hell freezes over,” said Ferbrache, who theorized the best the band can do is “to grow old and bitter like the rest of us.”

“I’m basing that on the fact that there’s no possibility for anyone in music to ever have success in the future whatsoever, unless it’s something that’s designed by a corporation to be force-fed.”

From left: Tom Hagerman, Shawn King, Jeanie Schroder and ‘Sweeney Todd’ conductor Erik Daniells in preparation for the upcoming staging of Sweeney Todd.’ Photo by John Moore.

Urata said the day he is forced to compromise his vision to appease any record company is the day he stops playing. But he has faith.

“Maybe with all this CD-burning and Napsterism and what-not, maybe the kids will start finding their own bands that aren’t fed to them by some corporate monster,” he said. “Maybe they won’t even care about these new 19-year-old tarts or bad heavy-metal bands that are shoved down their throats. Maybe the kids won’t care about those bands, and the record companies won’t be able to sell their records and they’ll decide to get into defense contracting or something. I don’t know. That’s my fantasy.”

In the meantime, DeVotchKa will have to settle for being above ground in Colorado. Like 16 Horsepower, they’re no longer eligible for future underground consideration.

“Thank you for our stay in the underground,” King said. “But we are ready to come out now. It’s go-time for DeVotchKa … whatever that means.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Sweeney Todd: Ticket information

  • Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by High Wheeler (adapted by Christopher Bond); musical adaptation by DeVotchKa
  • April 8-May 15 (opens April 15)
  • Stage Theatre
  • Grammy-nominated Denver band DeVotchKa takes on the legendary demon barber of Fleet Street, serving up a reinvention of Sondheim’s musical thriller. Hell-bent on revenge, Sweeney Todd takes up with his enterprising neighbor in a devilish plot to slice their way through London’s upper crust. Justice will be served — along with audacious humor and bloody good thrills.
  • Accessible performance 1:30 p.m. May 1
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
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